“Do you smell that?” I asked my husband.
He sniffed the air. “I guess so. Smells like smoke.”
Peter wasn’t smoking at the time, so I knew it wasn’t cigarette smoke I detected. We were standing in the backyard to escape the stuffy duplex that we rented. In contrast to the warmth inside, there was a slight chill in the outside air that surprised me on the early July evening.
In the dark, my sense of smell was heightened. “I think I smell smoke,” I stated. I looked over at our neighbors’ house. I noticed a flickering light behind the attic window’s curtain. I also noticed a red glow.
“Look,” I instructed Peter. “Do you think there’s a fire?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
I’d recently worked at a Red Cross chapter. While the organization is known for providing disaster relief to those affected by large natural disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes, the majority of the local chapter’s assistance goes to families displaced by house fires. That weighed on my mind as I observed the pulsing light in that upstairs room.
“Should I call 911?” I asked.
“It’s up to you,” was Peter’s response.
I had no idea if the neighbors were home. The house was occupied by an older couple and someone I presumed to be their adult son.
I pulled out my phone and made the call.
We moved to the front yard to wait. Within moments I heard the sirens. The station was only six blocks away. The sound crescendoed and then I saw the flashing lights.
Two fire trucks pulled onto our street and came to a stop in front of our neighbors’ house. Residents along the block began pouring out onto the sidewalks to see what was happening.
Two firefighters stepped onto my neighbors’ porch and knocked. Meanwhile, the fire chief’s SUV pulled up to the curb behind the second engine. He came over to me. He had my name and address from the 911 call, but he asked me to confirm. I glanced over his shoulder at the neighbors’ house. The woman who lived there, obviously clad for bed, had opened the door. I focused my attention back on the chief to answer his questions about my call.
I didn’t see what happened next, but a fireman approached me a few minutes later.
“The smoke was probably from an outdoor fire pit. I recognize the smell,” he informed me. “One of the residents of the home is watching TV upstairs, and he has a strobe light. He’s going to turn the light off,” he went on.
I apologized to the chief and the firefighter. “I’m so sorry to have made you come out,” I said. “I’m so, so sorry,” I said again.
“Better safe than sorry,” the chief assured me.
After the trucks pulled away and the gawkers dispersed, I walked into the house. I was shaking. I began to cry.
I had made a mistake: my cheeks were the only thing on fire.
But calling to report a possible blaze had not been my greatest blunder.
The shameful mistake was not going to the neighbor’s house myself, not knocking on the door to check if they were home. My mistake was preserving anonymity and relying on professionals to save people whose names I didn’t know.
I had lived beside them for over a year.
From that point on, I couldn’t make eye contact with them knowing what I had done. And when we finally moved away six years later, I still didn’t know their names.